Who Pays to Repair Louisiana's Wetlands?

Southern Louisiana's wetlands, a buffer against hurricanes, are slowly disappearing. Oil exploration has contributed to the damage. But who should pay to repair the wetlands? The state government and oil companies are asking the federal government to foot a bill that will run into the billions.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

As fuel prices climb, a lot of people are accusing the oil and gas companies of price gouging, but some researchers are blaming the oil and gas industry for creating a different crisis. They say industry has made Louisiana more vulnerable than ever to hurricanes. The state used to have a vast protective belt of weblands -- forgive me, wetlands, along its coast. The marshes helped sap the power of hurricanes that come roaring in from the Gulf of Mexico. But hundreds of square miles of Louisiana wetlands have disappeared in recent decades. Studies show the oil and gas industry helped destroy them. State officials say it could cost as much as $100 billion to restore some of the wetlands and protect the state, but who should pay? NRP's Daniel Zwerdling reports.

DANIEL ZWERDLING reporting:

Louisiana's leaders want the federal government to foot the bill to protect the coast. They've launched an ad campaign to convince you.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Announcer: This land along Louisiana's coast is a world ecological significance and is being eaten away by a wet cancer. If allowed to continue, it will threaten the heart of our nation...

ZWERDLING: They call this campaign Save America's Wetland. Governor Kathleen Blanco supports it. So do business leaders and environmentalists. They're warning that if the wetlands keep disappearing, you might have to pay even more for oil and gas, because thousands of miles of pipelines are buried in the wetlands and those pipelines could be disrupted. You might not be able to get some kinds of seafood anymore, because fish and shellfish spend part of their lives in the wetlands. And of course, as the wetlands disappear, it'll increase the chances that a hurricane could destroy New Orleans.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Announcer: Louisiana is alerting the nation, and the world, to the urgency of this crisis by hosting...

ZWERDLING: But here's what these ads do not tell you. Studies show that the oil and gas industry played a major role in destroying the wetlands in the first place, and now oil and gas companies have teamed up with state leaders to sponsor this ad campaign, which is designed to get the federal treasury to send the money to fix the damage. Oliver Houck says that's wrong.

Professor OLIVER HOUCK (Law, Tulane University): What's wrong is the hit man's walking away from the hit scene.

ZWERDLING: Houck runs the environmental law program at Tulane University. He says the crisis in the wetlands symbolizes a bigger issue: When should a powerful industry have to take responsibility for helping cause an environmental crisis?

Professor HOUCK: No wetlands. They've been our first line of defense, and that line of defense has been butchered. It has been chopped up. It's gone. Oil and gas ripped our defenses away. So the question is: Who's going to pay for that?

ZWERDLING: Spokesmen for the oil companies say critics like Houck are exaggerating their role. We'll hear from industry in a few minutes, but first, if you really want to understand why Houck and others say industry should pay up, it helps to see Louisiana's coast.

(Soundbite of airplane and conversation)

ZWERDLING: Let's start by going up in a Cessna.

A researcher named Gene Turner and I are heading over the wetlands at about 5,000 feet. The plane's so noisy we have to shout into the microphone.

Professor GENE TURNER (Louisiana State University): Look at it now. We're now crossing right over, on the right-hand side of the plane, the south side of Jug Lake.

ZWERDLING: Turner has spent decades studying why these wetlands are disappearing. He's a professor at Louisiana State University. He says wetlands are like the word says. They're land, and a lot of water flows over them and under them at various times of the year. But that doesn't mean they look waterlogged. In fact, healthy wetlands are often so firm you can walk on them. Turner says if we'd been flying over this landscape back in the 1960s, it would have looked like prairie all the way to the horizon.

Professor TURNER: It was covered. There was hardly any open water. All green, grass, like a hayfield, so it would have been a carpet of vegetation.

ZWERDLING: And that was the natural barrier that protected the region from hurricanes. But Turner says: Look out of the plane now. There's no carpet of wetlands down there anymore. We're flying over open water.

Professor TURNER: It's like looking at a bathtub. There's just water, there's no marsh that used to be here just within our lifetime. It's just amazing.

ZWERDLING: More than 600 square miles of wetlands have vanished in the past few decades. A lot of different forces have helped destroy them, including levees, suburban sprawl, new highways, but Gene Turner says, most important, the oil and gas companies moved in. He says at this point in the story: We need to get back to earth.

(Soundbite of motor)

ZWERDLING: Turner's assistant is steering a boat down a huge canal that slices straight through the wetlands. It's like zooming down a four-lane highway bordered by walls of grass. Nature didn't put this canal here: the oil and gas companies did. Over the last 50 years the industry found huge deposits of oil and gas under these wetlands. The companies decided that the cheapest way to drill wells and lay pipelines was with boats. So they hauled in giant steam shovels, and they dredged more than 8,000 miles of canals and let them fill up with water. Today these wetlands are carved up by thousands of watery streets.

Professor TURNER: We should stop on the bank and talk about what we're seeing right here.

ZWERDLING: Turner's pointing at the man-made ridges that line both sides of the canal. That's because every time the steam shovel scooped up a big chunk of marsh while it was dredging this channel, they just dumped the dirt along the banks.

We clamper up one of the ridges, and Turner says notice that we're standing a few feet higher than the rest of the wetlands around us. Remember, marshes need water to flow in and out with the tides. That's what keeps the grasses and roots alive. But Turner says these ridges are like walls which prevent that from happening, so the grasses and the roots in the wetland gradually die. Then the soil that they used to hold in place disintegrates, and finally water fills the vacuum, forever.

So you're saying these canals are what helps create that disaster we saw looking down from the plane.

Professor TURNER: Absolutely. And I wish we had started earlier to address these issues, but we haven't. Now we're paying the long-term consequences.

ZWERDLING: Just about everybody agrees that the oil and gas companies have contributed to the disaster in the wetlands, but people disagree about how much. Executives in the oil industry say it's no big deal. Just ask Jim Porter. He runs the industry's main lobby group in Louisiana.

Have the oil and gas companies damaged the wetlands?

Mr. JIM PORTER (President, Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association): It's, it's less than 10 percent of damage that's occurred. As far as the coast was on, it's such a, such a big issue. There are so many causes and there's no simple solution to it, that I just do not feel that they should bear the burden of that, the oil and gas company.

ZWERDLING: But Gene Turner and almost two dozen other scientists studied the wetlands for the U.S. Interior department. They concluded that the oil and gas companies have caused between 30 and 60 percent of all the destruction in Louisiana's wetlands. Still, the state's leaders say they agree with industry executives: The companies should not be responsible for fixing their damage.

Mr. King Milling (President, Whitney National Bank): We can spend an awful lot of time trying to assess blame. We're just not in the blame game.

ZWERDLING: That's King Milling. Milling helped launch the campaign to save the wetlands. He's one of the most influential bankers in the state. Or talk to one of the governor's top aides.

Ms. SIDNEY COFFEE (Executive Assistant to the Governor for Coastal Activities): You know what, we have tried very hard as a state never to lay blame.

ZWERDLING: That's Sidney Coffee. The governor has put her in charge of drafting the state's plan to protect the coast. When you talk to Coffee and Milling and other officials, they say here's why the industry should not be held liable. First of all, the industry dug most of its canals decades ago, around the 1960s and '70s. And King Milling says nobody realized back then that the wetlands were important.

Mr. MILLING: The thing we must remember is, these wetlands, in some large measure, were considered by almost everyone as wastelands. Wastelands.

ZWERDLING: The industry spokesman uses almost the same words. Jim Porter says people used to look at the wetlands and think...

Mr. PORTER: Boy, this is nothing but a wasteland. They were just not recognized as being a valuable resource.

ZWERDLING: Second, they all say there weren't any laws back then that required the industry to protect the wetlands. Again, here are Sidney Coffee, King Milling, and Jim Porter.

Ms. COFFEE: Everything that's happened out there was done legally.

Mr. MILLING: I'm not apologizing at all for the industry. I acknowledge what has happened. It is a most unfortunate reality. But I'm not sure that we should be in the business of trying to hindsight activity if people were in fact doing what they were legally responsible to do at the time.

Mr. PORTER: So to go back in time when there was no regulations in place and say, Okay, you're now responsible, I don't think so. I think that's something that general society has got to deal with.

ZWERDLING: But when you look back in history, it turns out that the story is more complicated than that. I found some of the evidence one morning in the library at the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters in New Orleans.

Ms. SANDRA BROWN (Chief Librarian, Army Corps of Engineers): Our environmental impact statements are located in this aisle.

ZWERDLING: It turns out that the Army Corps' staff wrote a thick report about the wetlands back in the early 1970s. The chief librarian, Sandra Brown, pulled it off the shelf.

Ms. BROWN: Final environmental statement, crude oil and natural gas production along the Louisiana coast, 1 February 1973.

ZWERDLING: And as you leaf through this report, you'll find that nobody was arguing back in 1973 that the wetlands are wastelands. To the contrary. Read Page 86. Quote, "The coastal areas of Louisiana are unique." Unquote. The report warns that the oil and gas industry is destroying miles of wetlands every year. It threatens seafood and wildlife. The Army Corps report says the country needs that oil, but it says the companies could cause a lot less damage in the wetlands if they would change their methods. Industry executives refused.

Mr. PAUL TOMPLE(ph) (Former Official, State of Louisiana): And so for them to say well, there weren't any controls, of course there weren't any controls because they were beating them all down.

ZWERDLING: That's a former state official named Paul Tomple. Back in 1971 the Governor of Louisiana hired Tomple to help figure out how can we protect the wetlands. But Tomple says you have to understand the political climate back then. The oil industry had huge influence over Louisiana's government. For instance, the oil and gas companies provided roughly 40% of the state's budget in the form of royalties and taxes. One of the state's U.S. Senators was nicknamed the Senator from oil, and Tomple says he and his colleagues fought for years to try to get the legislature to protect the wetlands.

Mr. TOMPLE: If I came in with a set of regulations before a committee, the oil and gas industry would stand up and say, well, this is going to hurt us. You're going to lose money. You're going to lose tax revenues. You're going to lose jobs. And then you've got, say, eight members on the committee and if you don't get five votes on your side, the regulations are dead.

ZWERDLING: So here it is, more than 30 years later, and Oliver Houck says it's time for the oil and gas companies to settle up. Houck is one of the country's leading specialists on environmental law. He's at Tulane University. He says Congress has passed three landmark laws in the past few decades that lay out a simple principle.

Professor HOUCK: The principle is, you caused the harm, you profited off it, the harm continues, you fix it. Polluter pays.

ZWERDLING: Look at the famous Superfund law. Back in 1980 Congress told the chemical industry, look, you've dumped toxic wastes across the nation. We realize that you were obeying the laws of the time, but we now know that those chemicals are destroying the environment. So you have to help pay to clean up the damage.

Professor HOUCK: What we have here is an industry in Louisiana that has caused a large public harm in the wetlands. It didn't do it intentionally; it even did it with permission. But it caused the harm. And the harm is catastrophically greater than anyone imagined. Now, is it fair to ask taxpayers around the country to pick up the bill for Exxon-Mobil and Shell? I mean, have you looked at Exxon's profits this last year?

ZWERDLING: Some local politicians agree. They want the oil and gas companies to pay a new tax to help repair the wetlands. Industry executives say forget it. Stacy Methvin is a vice resident of Shell. She says the companies can always shut down their operations in Louisiana and go someplace else.

Ms. STACY METHVIN (Vice President Base Chemicals Americas, Shell Chemicals): Anytime that you overtax the industry in this area you will end up with them looking for more competitive areas to develop, and therefore I think the nation's energy supply will suffer.

ZWERDLING: So far, industry executives don't need to worry. Governor Blanco and other state officials have made it clear that the oil industry won't have to pay any extra money to protect the coasts. They say oil companies are already doing enough. Companies are financing the national ad campaign to get the federal government to cover the bill.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Announcer: Don't be a big loser. Help save coastal Louisiana. It's America's wetland.

ZWERDLING: The ad ends with a close-up of Shell's corporate logo. Shell is the campaign's single biggest sponsor. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

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